"You can't help but be well-behaved at Hartwell House", I whisper to my sunlounger neighbour, in awe of my surroundings. "Really?" she says. "The French king might not agree with you there."
Hartwell is a National Trust-owned Grade 1-listed Jacobean and Georgian house in Buckinghamshire. Situated in 90 acres of blissfully quiet English parkland complete with croquet lawn and tennis courts, it's just forty miles north west of London. On arrival, the stress of the city is swiftly shrugged off as we sweep down a long drive that curves elegantly towards the hotel, past a magnificent equestrian statue of Frederick, Prince of Wales.
First mentioned in the Domesday Book, the site originally belonged to a son of William the Conqueror before King Louis XVIII of France lived here in exile for five years from 1809-1814. He brought with him his queen, Marie Josephine, and a 200-strong entourage. It was apparently a wild scene – an entire French court accustomed to the gaieties of Versailles landing in the middle of the English countryside. They crammed into the house and a farm popped up on the roof – chickens and rabbits lived happily alongside vegetable plots atop the manor.
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As soon as you step into Hartwell, the house cocoons you in tranquil luxury. Crystal tinkles, voices are lowered, people are nice to one another and dinner is something to dress up for. It's as if manners are being piped in through the walls, such is the restful English decorum of the place. The house has been so expertly restored, it feels far less like a hotel and more like a vivid, fascinating slice of history. It's easy to imagine the place filled with bustling courtiers and chambermaids while Louis plays whist in the library or strolls through the grounds tending to his beloved roses.
The bedrooms are impressive – big sprawling affairs with soaring Rococo ceilings, antiques and fine paintings. A dramatic gothic hall in the centre of the stately home houses an extraordinary Jacobean staircase, lined with hand-carved statues of the knights of Europe, who guard the way to bed. Legend has it that Marie Josephine was so terrified of the looming candlelit shadows cast by the statues, she banished them to the cellars.
Climbing the stairs to the Maids of Honour room, sunlight floods in through huge sash windows. There are window seats perfect for curling up in with a book. It's hard to find a reason to leave this charming room with its bath deep enough to swim in, but pre-dinner drinks in the drawing room call.
Dinner is a high-ceilinged, white tablecloth affair served by affable waiters in tailcoats, no less. Highlights of the well-judged menu include a delicious confit rainbow trout with lime puree and zesty cherry and cardamom parfait. Herbs and vegetables from the expansive kitchen gardens and orchards are woven into the menu, and local produce is used wherever possible. Retiring to the library for post-dinner drinks is the obvious next step. Here we are lulled by the graceful tinkle of the in-house pianist.
More modern but still elegant is Hartwell spa, where we sunbathe in a secluded walled courtyard before heading inside for a swim. My swimming strokes become slower than usual, more in tune with the gentle pace of the spa as sunlight pours through high windows onto a mosaic-lined pool. Set in a former orangery 150 yards from the main house, the spa has a sauna, steam room and gym overlooking the pool.
Hartwell is the only hotel in the UK to offer treatments by Bioeffect, a premium skincare brand founded by three Icelandic scientists. The Nobel Prize-winning discovery of growth factors in 1986 opened up a universe of genetic research, inspiring the trio to spend ten years working on bioengineering human growth factors in barley. The results are impressive – it's the world's first skincare brand to contain three different types of cellular activators found in human skin, replicated in plants.
I had heard astonishing things about Bioeffect facials, but nothing quite prepared me for my dewy, childlike complexion post-treatment. I eyed my time-bending therapist with suspicion when she re-entered the room but she laughed and assured me most people respond the same way.
Staying at Hartwell helps to preserve the curious history of the place – the stately home is managed by Historic House Hotels who donate all profits to the house and the National Trust. The perfect spot for a spa weekend with a friend, or an amorous getaway, Hartwell is also the ideal place for some peace and tranquility.
"Why wouldst thou leave calm Hartwell's green abode?" asked Lord Byron, of Louis XVIII's return to France in 1814.
Doubles start at £230 and include early morning tea and a cooked English breakfast taken in the dining room, as well as use of Hartwell Spa.
Hartwell House, Oxford Road, Aylesbury; hartwell-house.com; 01296 747444
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